Overweening Generalist

Monday, June 27, 2016

Phenomenology and Info-Glut

At some point in the past 12 years I began to develop a Shadow that watched me consume information. Metaphorically, the Shadow set up lines of communication with "me" and took measures to insert redundancy and insulated wires, etc: the clarity of signal between Shadow and "me" became less and less noisy. I am not describing a clinical picture here; I'm not mentally ill.

Not yet, anyway.

The Shadow seemed only concerned with how I felt when reading books or on Internet, or any other media in which we decode alphabetical "words." (i.e., It's a lot like what you're doing right where you are sitting now.) I noticed It didn't care very much about my listening to music or watching TV. There had been a similar sort of Entity many years ago that watched my TV watching, but it was blunt and always correct. A typical message: "You're not really enjoying this program. Not anymore. Turn it off and do what really makes you happy."

A lot of the time that happy-making thing was reading. It still is.

I know now this Shadow and the earlier Entity were parts of myself I'd constructed from reading and thinking about how media affects me. And I know my reading can make me unhappy, but sometimes I ward that off by saying to myself, "This is very unpleasant information, and it seems mostly true, or true enough. But I'd rather be one who knows how the world 'really' works than an oblivious bore. It's what Jefferson said was essential for democracy to work." Something like that.

Mostly my reading brings me great joy and wonder. That's why I'm addicted to it. I'm okay with the addiction. Resonant energy-language from books interacting with my nervous system has become some sort of activity that acts symbiotically: I derive a sort of secular religiosity of wonder from it; it derives my attention and money, but I think the thing it really likes is how I propagate its seed. It wants pullulation; I deliver. We're both happy.

And, like playing a musical instrument, reading on and on for years and really challenging yourself makes you a more formidable reader. I can pick up Finnegans Wake at any point, read a page and yack about my interpretations there for 20 minutes. I'm currently reading my first Murakami book (and it's great!: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, not that you'd asked) and I get the palpable feeling that my intense readings of Borges make this book "easier" because of the earlier heavy lifting of the Argentine and Chandler, maybe William Gibson and a handful of like-marvelous writers...

I've at times (twice at minimum) read myself into Chapel Perilous, and reading was part of finding my way out. Nowadays the only worry I have in these regards is Info-Glut. I first became aware that I was not the only one who experienced the vertigo of info when a book called Information Anxiety appeared on the New Books shelf at my local library in 1990. It was by some guy named Richard Saul Wurman, who later invented the TED Talks. He gave some historical perspective. Misery loved company yet again. I forget whether Lassie ever really did come home...

Since then: a flood/deluge/onslaught/barrage/din of books and articles on the effects of too much information interacting with the nervous system. Ironic? Hell yes. Those terms (flood/deluge, etc) are some of the same ones people use when they talk about their own "info overload."

So: I guess I model internally my reading on some sort of Bell Curve, and most of the time I'm right near the top, on the lefthand slope, enjoying myself. And if I get to the top and tip over and start sliding down the righthand side, I know some good breathing exercises. I know to go be with friends. I know when to take a walk or play guitar, lose myself in that.

Some Notes From Outside Me and My Shadow

-David Foster Wallace, in an essay collected in Both Flesh and Not, addressed the combination of boredom - which his friend and fellow writer Jonathan Franzen said DFW died from (boredom) - and information anxiety: Total Noise. He not only addressed the personal responsibility to be informed as a citizen in a "democracy" but he felt like he was drowning, losing his autonomy, in "the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective." In order to stay afloat, we need allies, proxies, and subcontracting friends who will maybe read that long article for you, and tell you what's the gist and pith. A bulwark against info-glut were those invaluable writers of concision who knew how to marshall the flood of facts and convey them meaningfully. They seem to be essayists.

While I doubt I'll ever totally understand DFW's boredom problem - some things seem simply beyond me, temperamentally - the irony for us here is that he was one of those writers who provided that bulwark for us.

What further complicates DFW for me: in his brilliant discussion of Kafka and short stories and jokes in Consider the Lobster, he addresses Danish science writer Tor Norretranders's idea of exformation, "which is a certain quality of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient." - that's how DFW unpacks Norretranders here.

DFW's suicide is too sad -not to mention too arch and far too simplifying - to posit that his boredom-unto-out-of-control-depression-and-suicide was due to going over the Bell Curve, down the right-hand slope, careening into oblivion. His writing gives me nothing but pleasure; he makes me feel smarter. He helps me deal with the Glut.

-In David Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading he tells us about the Global Information Industry Center's 2009 study about information consumption by Unistatians in 2008: tons of shallow crap. Okay, but why? This led me to Elizabeth Eisenstein.

-Around 1962, the honcho primo of the American Historical Association, Carl Bridenbaugh, gave a talk about how the new media of TV, telephones, polaroid cameras, transistor radios, data processing machines and "that Bitch Goddess, Quantification."

Bridenbaugh: "Notwithstanding the incessant chatter about communication that we hear daily, it has not improved; actually it has become more difficult."

Eisenstein's massive, 2-vol The Printing Press as an Agent of Change argued the opposite of Bridenbaugh, who thought we were losing our history, our memory, who we are, due to the new media. Eisenstein showed how utterly profound the Gutenberg explosion was responsible for the rise of science, the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance. She cited Marshall McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy for pointing to scholars that they can be blind to the very medium in which they swim: books. The past was becoming not less accessible, but more accessible. Scholars translate books, crack codes like Linear B, uncover the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.

Still: how to make sense of that part of the glut you're mired in at present? Does info glut make us culturally crazy? Is this ultimately behind the phenomena of "FOMO" and other mediated maladies since 2000CE?

-T.S. Eliot, by 1934 quite the reactionary, but still:

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
-"The Rock"

While I don't share Eliot's Anglican bend by any stretch, why not constantly wonder about the principles and workings in us of data/information/knowledge/wisdom? And, perhaps especially: silence? It seems to me worthsomewhiles.

-Aldous Huxley and the stoned intelligentsia that followed in the wake of his Doors and Perception and Heaven and Hell often picked up Aldous's metaphorical riff: that tripping on LSD and psilocybin was flooding the nervous system with information. Huxley compared the experience of rapid info-flow on psychedelics as if ordinary life was spent while your mind was a garden hose with a crink in it, so we experience those dribbles and drabs as "reality. With psychedelic drugs, the garden hose is straightened out, and it feels like a goddamned fire hose of info-deluge. With the slightest tweak of a serotonin molecule, "reality" is seen in a profoundly new light. Lots of us have at times freaked out on that...glut.

It doesn't seem too much to see why robotic cults follow in the wake of this: the replacement by a very low-info environment. The grasping at quotidian Our Leader Will Tell Us crap. Jesus Told Me To Tell You crap. In order to feel better. I get it.

Back To My Shadow and Me

One thing that helps me in staving off the fear from Info-Glut: I find it feels good to imagine being part of a conspiracy of readers/knowers who are privy to certain things. (If I recall correctly, the Shadow turned me on to this cabal.) This seems to me at once both a product of my arrested adolescent Walter Mitty-mindedness, and a hedge against, for lack of a better word, insanity. I mean, Ted Kaczynski read the Great Books. Cosmic humor and frequent erotic flings with the Infinite Goof seem quite on the jocoserious order in face of the Glut. Or: do you have a better way?

                                             l'image de bobby campbell                                       


Eric Wagner said...

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it." - John Cage

michael said...

I thought I had SOMETHING to say?

Oh, but I don't really think you meant it that way (or did you?):

There's an obscure term in rhetoric: praecisio. ("pray-KEY-see-oh"). Richard Kostelanetz says it's the step beyond aporia. You make your point by saying nothing.

Kostelanetz gives an example from art: Jean Arp's "a knifeless blade that is missing its handle."
-Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes, pp.491-492

Eric Wagner said...

No, I think you have something to say. I did not, except that I wonder about how to understand the here and now: "Is this ultimately behind the phenomena of 'FOMO' and other mediated maladies since 2000CE?"

My chronological trek through film history has served in part to help me see the world of the here and now. I've reached 1997, and I hope to reach the present next month. I wonder what I will find there.

michael said...

FOMO= Fear Of Missing Out, widely studied new anxiety among mostly young people, who must constantly check their status on Facebook and other such sites and who in their social circle of "friends" said what about who, etc.

It's been about 20 years since everyone got a computer and an email address, and income inequality has accelerated, jobs suck, the top search terms after the Brexit where "what is the EU?" and "what is Brexit"...after they voted for it. Google "continuous partial attention" too...multiple studies show real-life face-time social skills are eroding. A significant chunk of the population thinks it's really smart because it can just whip out its gadget and "look it up." That's "knowing." I could go on. Basic Income isn't even discussed in Unistat. The Overton Windown on that is still opaque. No, we get Trump and Hillary.

Of course Internet is great, but one must use it, and allow it to use you. I really, really RILLY liked Jaron Lanier's _Who Owns the Future?_ and even more: Rushkoff's _Throwing Rocks At The Google Bus_.

Re: films now? I suspect lots of spandex superheroes. We're all 15 yr old boys now, apparently.

michael said...

ADDENDA: Oh yea: now The State has us under surveillance in a way the Stasi couldn't have imagined in their wildest dreams.

Dirtydiscordia said...

I can certainly empathise with your unease with Info-glut. Ignorance is sometimes bliss after all - Noam Chomsky's work often provokes that reaction in me. Intensely informative, but thoroughly discomforting..

Leary and Terence McKenna used to rap on novelty and information richness, that how valuable something is often depends on the amount of new information you glean from it. A politician's speech gives little or no information, whereas a good book gives up plenty.

Perhaps a general feeling of information overload in people has led to this curious phenomena in TV, games and film where old series or movies are being increasingly rebooted and regurgitated. I had thought of it as indicative of the slow death of the mainstream cultural paradaigm, but on reading your post feel obliged to look at it differently.

What a click-bait headline that would be! "Is Info-Glut causing the new Ghostbusters movie?"

And as for Brexit, thus far it only seems to be proving that Chaos never died.. Personally, I can feel the last days of the Weimar Republic in the air, and it's both disconcerting and seemingly inevitable.

Words will save us, right?


michael said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

I think ignorance is bliss, but only in retrospect. Ignorance seems like the ultimate default position, but you and I place knowing - or becoming better informed about some aspect of "reality" - very highly in our hierarchy of what's worth doing in this life. I agree with you about Chomsky (but only about his political writing). I remember spending the better part of a year many years ago reading about the history of the CIA, FBI, Hoover, COINTELPRO, and "alternative" histories of Unistat...and while it was ultra-unpleasant, it made sense. I thought it was far closer to the "truth" than all the shit they spoon-fed us in elementary/junior high/high school, and even a lot of college. (I once had an admitted ex-Navy Intel/ex-CIA guy as a professor in a Current Events class. It was ridiculous!)

I can't NOT try to know more of the truth. I can't undo what I've learned. I don't admire ignorance. So what do we do to protect ourselves from the fallout of unknowing very maddening things?

One thing I try to do is triangulate: I try to see from as many angles as I can. Also: as we scan out eyes left-right, left -right across pages, we're taking in INFO, but let's try to make it into KNOWLEDGE. This still seems somewhat mysterious and personal, but I try to incorporate this new INFO into all the other things I read and think about. If we practice this, we can know more about ourselves.

Chaos not only never died, the sociological information through-put increases and therefore more craziness escalates. What is the quality of our info? What is the quality of our lives? If we think we're part of some brotherhood/sisterhood of humanity, how far do we extend ourselves in the care of others? What's possible to alleviate suffering?

The quality of the Info-Glut? A lot of it seems dull, even stupid...as if: IF we're faced with an onslaught of Info available to us, and we FEEL overwhelmed by it, why not make our waking Info-Glut moments about text messages and shallow glosses of stories of stories, hearsay and gossip, trivia, and sports, and more and more about our little niches? It's a poor version of what a guy like Chomsky would call "intellectual self-defense." But I understand it. I wish more citizens were like you, but I can't change the situation.

I have to accept it. Maybe the best approach is to joke. Or better yet: practice some form of Erisian guerrilla ontology?

Anonymous said...

You are bewildered. Jefferson was anti-social in his tact often and prone to avoid face time and send douchebag letters to Congress. Celts believed the word to be insidiously bad for what they had in stead of democracy - community. This is my bias. I am somewhat bewildered. I read Krishnamurti. As well as RAW. And Musashi. Why not play guitar while listening to books? Your eyes must hurt?

Chaos is a word. Like bewilderment. Just a word. You are not bewildered. The image I hold of you is.

Aaron Burr told Jefferson how it is?

What is possible to alleviate suffering:

1. Death does this
2. You don't need to perish to die
3. Mind and body are just words
4. Soul is what you can get away with
5. Abide in dying into a jolly laughter fit

Humour. Jokes are static and subjectively relative.Intentionally make people laugh.
I've alway held with Paul Krasser as a Zen Bastard. Discordianism not so much.
I like reading about it, like you folks enjoy reading about the CIA as of it were real.

I really enjoy this blog. I come late to reading addiction, but hard. I heard it gets bad after 40?
I guess they all do, did any body ever stave to death making music? Really? Die of laughter?

Stave. Imagine if Joyce had an IPad, and The Crown were able to suggest words for him!!
I believe that I, a Newfoundlander, am able to crush the word world sword down with a total Mummer Summer of laughter, even though sorrows in dog days do seem possible.

A Ribbon Fool Season in 2016. In all your souls is a Ribbon Fool, latent, in your hearts.
Pull out a typewriter. See how you conserve. Write some snail mail. Save my job in Canada.

Tell Trudeau to stop elbowing people in the tits. Who is Gordie Howe? Dock Ellis? Who were they?
Who can intimidate the word? Deconstruct it. Break it. Pull it from the tone? Michael, you are never gonna do it with one hand.
Lay down the machete and do a little ditty or two on a cheap banjo for fuck sakes, then stand up from rock and pull with both hands.

I admire ignorance all the time!
Did you ever experience Fox Harbour's patented ignorance?!
Surely not the Little St. Lawrence variety. There is a great fostering freedom in it.

Did Aaron Burr get shot, or shoot someone? I don't KNOW that Jefferson was a passive-aggressive dickwheedler.
He was a Parisian for sure. All my Americana comes from The Lincoln Library and Highlights magazine.

People want drone footage, not snail mail. Leapfrog. The first Internet-like service was offered in Brittany France in the late 70's.
I forget the name. My first computer was a C-64. I used it to speak to people, in BASIC. I'd get my siblings to input their names, and the computer would insult them.

"Thomas Jefferson, Inventor of the Leapfrog..."

Anonymous said...

I just read the story on Burr. Wow. Imagine if Trump and Hillary have a big snail mail exchange, get rotten with each other, and sneak of to take illegal potshots at each other with black power pistols over, initially, Twitter insults?!

How much would that drone footage in 4k fisheye sell for on mass media markets?

The ball removed by Manhattan doctors from Trump's nutsack on EBay?

A mere comic? Cartoon even?

michael said...


With Trump and Hillary dueling, the Q is "Who would win?"

The answer is: We all would.

Thanks for the vivacious comments, Anon.

When I used the word "alleviate" I meant it in a rather literal sense: not to eliminate, but to lessen suffering, but still: your points all hold.